Exclusive: Two in three companies’ practices keep animals in stressful conditions and encroach on wild habitats – creating ‘breeding grounds’ for new diseases
Non-profit organisation the Fairr Initiative has scored food industry companies according to their perceived risk of allowing new diseases to emerge.
The report, backed by a World Health Organisation Covid envoy, blames a failure to improve crowded, high-stress conditions in animal agriculture for creating an “ideal breeding ground” for infections.
The companies were rated on conditions for animals, “aggressive encroachment” into wild habitats and labour practices that it claims contributed to the spread of disease among workers.
The research ranked 38 out of 60 animal agriculture firms (63 per cent) as “high risk”, including a Chinese supplier to McDonald’s and Tesco.
None of the seven large meat firms studied, including US giants, planned to extend enhanced sick leave to prevent employees suffering with the coronavirus from attending work, according to the study.
Experts from both the UN and the European Food Safety Authority have previously pinpointed animals or food of animal origin as a starting point for emerging diseases, such as Covid-19.
The UN says factors likely to drive a new pandemic include increased demand for animal protein; a rise in intense and unsustainable farming and the increased use and exploitation of wildlife, as well as the climate crisis.
The new report, produced by a multi-trillion-pound investor network FAIRR, marking two years of the pandemic, says the 63 per cent is a slight improvement from 73 per cent in June 2020 but it still showed the vast majority were performing poorly.
Eight of the 10 worst performing companies in the ranking are based in Asia.
When animals are kept in crowded conditions, they are more susceptible to viruses, and the stress lowers their immune systems, allowing pathogens to spread more easily than in the wild.
Regular use of antibiotics creating resistance and lower genetic diversity of animals are other risk factors.
David Nabarro, special envoy on Covid-19 for the World Health Organisation, said: “The emergence of diseases that move between animals and humans has increased markedly in the past decade.
“Hence the importance of concerted action by governments, sectors, institutions, civil society, indigenous peoples, youth and more, convened by the World Health Organisation, to adapt systems for preventing pandemics and countering the inequity of infectious disease.”
The report recommends regulation to encourage diversification into alternative proteins, among other measures.
Other experts have previously warned the “cocktail” of infections to which chickens are subjected creates a near-perfect breeding ground for a disease outbreak of pandemic potential.
Jeremy Coller, chair and founder of Fairr, said: “The message from the markets is clear: following SARS, swine flu and Ebola, Covid-19 must be a line in the sand.
“Business-as-usual animal agriculture risks incubating the next zoonotic pandemic, posing both an intolerable investment risk and a threat to global public health.
“The sector must improve rapidly, starting with welfare conditions for both animals and workers.”
Alex Burr, of Legal & General Investment Management, said the findings should be a wake-up call for the meat industry.
The Independent asked both Tesco and McDonald’s to comment but the companies had not responded by publication.